Off the Map

When you open City of Bohane, you’re opening not just a novel, but a Fodor’s guide to a metropolis—an eerie, vibrant, murderous domain with its own grittily mythic lore and customs and its own apocalyptic Celtic slang. The Irish novelist Kevin Barry provides a story, too, of course—a saga of gang warfare and ruthless hoodlums vying for power and love—and he infuses it with a memorable jazzy lyricism. But it’s the alluringly seamy geography you’ll remember. With its labyrinthine tenements, shopping drag lined with soothsayers, and amputees hawking walnuts on a train-station floor, Bohane is a city so real and detailed and thoroughly mapped that it could give Dickens’s London and James Joyce’s Dublin a run for their money.

Admittedly, Bohane doesn’t exist—not yet, anyway. Barry sets his tale in the mid-twenty-first century, an era when Ireland’s western coast has devolved into settlements of savage clans. Surrounded by the unnervingly desolate Big Nothin’ bogs, the city of Bohane operates quasi-independently from what is termed the Nation Beyond. A gang called the Hartnett Fancy dominates much of the city, under the leadership of the genteel-but-brutal Logan Hartnett, who’s a mean hand with a shkelper (a kind of knife). When Hartnett’s long-exiled rival, the Gant Broderick, turns up, the stage is set for mob violence and betrayal.

Barry has done a knockout job filling in the contours of this alternate reality. Made up of distinctive neighborhoods (the squalid but lively Smoketown, the snooty Beauvista bluff, the maze-like Back Trace), Bohane embraces an idiosyncratic drug culture—citizens succumb to narcotic “dream-pipes” and swig an illegal green liquor dubbed “the Beast.” Ethnic and factional tensions abound: there is widespread disdain, for instance, for the “sand-pikeys,” a slave-holding, gypsy-like race that lives outside the city. Reporting on this troubled environment is a storied newspaper, the Vindicator, whose slogan is “Truth or Vengeance.” Also in evidence is religion: the cult of the “Sweet Baba Jay.” It’s a faith whose manifestations (arcane rituals involving yellow flags; “holler-meetings….writhing with fainters, swooners, hot-foot shriekers”) can be easily manipulated by wheeler-dealers like Hartnett.

Exotic as it is, the world of Bohane harks back to familiar legends and literary traditions. The aging love triangle of Hartnett, Hartnett’s wife, and the Gant has a little of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot dynamic. The cycle of rulership in Bohane, and the town’s unruly celebration of the annual August Fair, could easily be case studies in James G. Frazer’s classic treatise on myth, The Golden Bough. And literary influences seem to lurk beneath the elaborate sartorial descriptions that give certain scenes a stately rhythm and slightly humorous tone. A city power broker called Ol’ Boy Mannion, for instance, appears in “high-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults, and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.” Such descriptions suggest gang-color tradition, but they also give the characters the air of courtiers in a medieval narrative like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The painstaking inventory of garb also bears witness to Barry’s love affair with language. City of Bohane unspools in a Gaelic-flavored prose that’s sometimes chatty and vernacular, and sometimes taut and densely poetic. A flashbulb emits a “blue shriek” as a photographer documents a nighttime riot. “The sea withers on, always and forever, insanely” around a dangerous reef. In an image that evokes a Surrealist painting, the brooding Hartnett stalks through the Back Trace, feeling “the wynds’ pulsing: an arterial throb” and passing a pit bull that barks “a yard of stars.”

Such writing demands concentration; so does the mysterious exoticism of Bohane, especially in the book’s early sections, when the plot is establishing itself in tantalizingly pointillist fashion and the as-yet-unexplained references (“Sweet Baba Jay, ” the “sand-pikeys”) contribute to a deliberately disorienting atmosphere. City of Bohane is not, at first, an easy read. But persistence pays off: as elements of the landscape fall into place, Barry’s prose seems ever more seductive. Bohane itself becomes a place you would gladly visit—as long as you had a shkelper and a team of bodyguards watching your back.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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